Pointe Shoes

February 2011 - The Times

Beneath my bed, in a trunk full of memories, live my first pointe shoes. Four decades on from the day they were bought, I still recall their unyielding stiffness and my toes hard against the shop's linoleum floor. I was standing on history, the satin shoes with their stiff leather soles little changed since the late 19th century, when dancers adapted softer slippers to meet increasing demands of technique and virtuosity. Pointe shoes are the sharks of the footwear world, overlooked by evolution. Compared to the scientifically engineered footwear of world-class athletes, pointe shoes remain remarkably low tech: Hessian and glue beneath the shiny pink, each pair handmade and no two pairs identical.

Each dancer puts her shoes through a unique ritual of preparation before they reach the stage. Mine involved ripping out nails, separating inner and outer soles, fracturing the backs at a precise spot towards the heel, cutting away the satin around the toes' tips, slashing the soles to improve grip, attaching ribbons and bashing them against concrete to reduce noise. Only then would the shoes be given a chance – in the studio – to prove they might make it on stage.

Standing in equine, as medical professionals call pointe, is not unique to dancers. Horses do it, too, and it is neither painful nor dangerous. On pointe, the bones of the lower leg, ankle and foot align vertically, a plumb line on which the body's weight centres. The shoes provide support but the real strength is in the muscles of the feet, ankles and legs, developed through years of training. Toes may blister (and soft corns are a hazard of the job) but with the right shoes, dancing on pointe is familiar and natural: it's what we do.

Finding the right shoes, however, can be agony. Each new pair brings fresh hope that here, finally, are the ideal shoes – light but strong, flexible yet supportive – but every time, the awful reality dawns: no shoe is ever perfect. And so pointe shoes play a disproportionate role in our lives, our confidence over-dependent on the particular shoes on our feet.

With so many little girls drawn to ballet, there should be a sizeable market worldwide for a model that harnesses new technologies to bring the ballet shoe up to date, with orthotic insoles and shock absorbing toes. But ballet has a high drop out rate: while many take it up, relatively few continue past puberty, exams and boyfriends, when pointe work begins. Professional dancers, like athletes, generally prefer their kit to be tried and tested and with performances year-round, there's little opportunity to road test something new. I was never satisfied with my particular make of shoe but given the hold they had over me, the investment made in them and a tendency to prefer the devil I knew, I stuck with them to the end. The shoes for my final performance were pretty much the same as those shoes beneath my bed. Now, finally, there is a 21st century shoe that might – perhaps – release dancers from their enslavement to an ancient recipe of Hessian, glue and leather. I only wish I was young enough to give it a try.